Wednesday, May 27, 2009
2006 was my first Disney trip as a lacto-ovo vegetarian. It went, of course, very smoothly, finding tons of options, either custom created by eager chefs, or culled from various buffets.
In 2007 my family returned to WDW just as I was transitioning to full-on vegan, so I made a few concessions here and there (most of them dessert related).
Having been hardcore vegan for about a year and a half now, I found both new obstacles and new opportunities that arise with the mention of that peculiar five-letter word.
Gasparilla Grill and Games
We arrived (myself, my mother and my aunt, both of whom have food allergies and sensitivities, but who are still sadly, omnivores) in the late morning; so after checking into our rooms, we set out to get lunch. To use our first counter service (we ate on the Dining Plan) we hopped the monorail from the Polynesian Resort to the Grand Floridian.
Gasparilla Grill and Games is a great noisy little counter service location. The noise comes courtesy of the mini-arcade situated in the midst of the dining area. They have a nice selection of sandwiches for veggies and omnivores alike and the atmosphere isn’t distracting enough to be a deterrent.
I ordered the Tabouli Wrap with Cucumber Salad on the side. The wrap had tabouli (obviously), red pepper hummus, kalamata olives, tomatoes and lettuce. It was tasty and filling and they make them to order, so they aren’t waterlogged or stale by the time they reach your plate. The cuke salad was excellent, sweet and slightly vinegary, reminding me subtly of bread and butter pickles. (Though the chef said it was vegan-friendly, I did find out later that it contains sugar, which I doubt is the unrefined sort. That’s the one concession which a vegan may need to make in WDW. You likely will be consuming white sugar in some form or another down there, even if you stay away from all sweets. I’m sure it’s hidden where you least expect.)
Major bonus points for G.G.&G. comes in their ample supply of Divvies treats! Much of the park now stocks these tasty vegan chocolate chip cookies and caramel corn. I bought some for the road, opting for a cup of Tofutti (they keep chocolate and vanilla as well as Tofutti Cuties ice cream sandwiches on hand). Many restaurants around WDW and even the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor serve Tofutti and/or Rice Dream.
One other little aside about the Gasparilla Grill, prepare to dine with the birds. Inside. On the positive, they do make for some unique photo-ops!
Spirit of Aloha Polynesian Luau
Our first night there we ate at the Spirit of Aloha dinner show at the Polynesian Resort. The show is always fun, though they did restructure it a few years ago, not necessarily for the better. It rained (during most of our trip, and that night was no exception) so they confined the dancing to the smaller covered stage, but all in all, the show was the same.
I’ll begin with a caveat to any veggies traveling to WDW: call ahead and specify what restrictions you have! Not everyone knows what veganism entails, and this includes some chefs. Also, some pastas in the parks contain egg while some do not. The pluses for calling ahead are that they will 1. read you all of the ingredients in their food in the unrushed atmosphere of your own living room, and 2. sometimes they will bring in food from other nearby restaurants or make special arrangements for you. I suggest starting your calls no less than two weeks before your arrival date. Some chefs will respond right away but some will inevitably take more legwork on your part to track down. (When you make your reservations you can get diet numbers for many of the major restaurants, but not for the counter service locations. You may need to get creative to contact them!) The chefs are, however, all quite personable and eager to accommodate. Often this is a chance for the chef to flex their culinary muscles and create their own signature dish for you. (More on this later!)
Back to the Luau. I started with the normal salad which is a tropical-inspired salad with mandarin oranges and a delicious mango-poppy seed dressing. I could’ve made a meal on it alone. Vegetarians, you must try the pineapple coconut bread that comes with the meal. Vegans, stay away, it contains eggs. They will, however, like most restaurants in WDW give you Ener-G Tapioca rolls upon your request. These rolls taste WAY better than they sound.
For my meal, I opted for their Stir Fried Vegetables with Tofu and Couscous. The veggies included escarole, red and yellow peppers, carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, endive and snap peas. Really nice flavors. The tofu is grilled and well-seasoned.
For dessert, I got a fruit plate made up of watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and strawberries. All veggies should stay away from the regular desert. It contains gelatin.
Even though the Luau takes two Table Service vouchers, it always seems well worth it. The regular fare is “all you care to eat” but when you order special, you get what the chef brings you. That said, I was stuffed and couldn’t have eaten more even if they’d offered it.
For breakfast, I brought my own cereal and oats, and bought a container of Silk each morning (it’s quite ubiquitous in the resorts and the parks. However, if you are looking for soymilk in the Orlando airport, you’ll likely have to buy a cup of it from Starbucks).
For dinner the next night we used another counter service and ate at the Sunshine Seasons restaurant in The Land Pavilion at EPCOT. I bought their Cuban Vegetable Sandwich, ordering it without the cheese. The bread was crunchy, light and flavorful. As you can see from the pic, it was a bit sparse on veggies and would really make a better lunch than a dinner entrée. It contains the unlikely combination of roasted red pepper, portabella mushrooms, yellow squash, zucchini, pickles and yellow mustard. It tastes better than it sounds. As a side, I got their Black Bean Salad, which I could have eaten multiple servings of.
Their salads are also veganizable and they have a vegetarian stir fry meal which I was told is entirely vegan. (They also sell vegan sushi, but I prefer to make my own.)
Chefs De France
The next evening we celebrated my aunt’s birthday at Chef’s De France in EPCOT. They have two vegetarian options on the menu, though both include cheese. And vegans beware: their pasta contains eggs. So you will need to speak to a chef again and see what they’ll do for you.
I lucked out with a really nice chef who’d accommodated us in the past. He made me this lightly-spiced vegetable plate with ratatouille on the bottom and a delicious, slightly garlicky tomato sauce on the side. For dessert, vegans absolutely have to get their sorbet selection. You can choose three flavors, I opted for mango, blueberry and kiwi. They’re nothing but fruit, sugar and water. Remarkably refreshing and soothing.
The next night we ate at what used to be my favorite veg-friendly restaurant on property: Boma, in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The Lodge itself is dark and beautiful. Boma is a buffet with many vegetarian options. Beware, however, that though some of the salads and hot offerings are still vegan, you need to ask a chef before chowing down. Hummus, the great vegan staple, is at Boma, infused with cheese. This is a huge shame since I remember how delicious their hummuses (especially their olive hummus) used to be.
I have warm memories of Boma dating back to 2006. It’s where I met the amazing Chef T.J. Sudiswa, seemingly known to everyone as the legendary Chef T.J. Speak his name and people’s faces light up. Though not a vegetarian himself, he treats us veggies with something closely resembling an honorary status. I’ll be writing more about Chef T.J. later, but to show you what wooed me so, back in 2006 at Boma, after showing me all the vegetarian offerings on the buffet and allowing me to first gorge myself on them, he then, with great reverence, strode to my table with this gorgeous tofu-laden monstrosity in his hands:
Most of it was fried and every bite of it was unspeakably delicious. (Yes, I ate better than half of it. I know… I know…) And then, as if he hadn’t already given me ample reason for a serious stomach-based man-crush, he brought to our table these little devils (which I’ve heard Disney has since banned him from making due to the high level of deadly trans-fats appearing therein):
What are they? If you weren’t able to guess by the telltale black and white stripes peeking out through the lightly tanned hide, those are none other than a batch of deep fried Oreo cookies, drenched in melted chocolate. Yep. I know. And it was truly a rapturously decadent dessert. Each little melting ball of chocolaty fluff slid down my throat and found a cozy little nest inside each of my major arteries. I’m fairly certain they’re still there.
But back to 2009. Chef T.J. is no longer at Boma. He was moved about eight months ago to the notoriously meat-centric ‘Ohana back at the Polynesian Resort.
At Boma this time, I dealt with Chef Trish who was truly great. I don’t mean to take any shine away from her by my elaborate praise of Chef T.J. (but the man made me fried Oreo’s for crying out loud!). At Boma this year, I ate a few of the salads (you must try the watermelon rind salad. It’s gingery, sweet and a little bitter) and their mango dressing is like pouring a fresh mango over your mixed greens.
Chef Trish gave me the option of either her Coconut Curry Tofu or a tropical tofu made with Guava and Papaya juice. When my face showed an obvious inability to choose, she offered to make me both. I happily agreed.
Both were delicious, but the Guava/Papaya one made me dance a little in my seat with every bite, so I’d say it was the winner. One note on her tofu: I’m in the process of emailing her for the brand because she didn’t have it handy, but it was textured much more like chicken than tofu. It was dense and slightly stringy and was a welcome break from the regular extra firm. She seems to be the only person on property to use it because it was my only experience with it in all of my meals. I’ll post the info for it as soon as I receive it.
For dessert, Chef Trish made me a wonderful vegan banana split with Tofutti. (I was so full I asked her to make me something very small. It was perfect!)
The following morning we ate breakfast at Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort. Of course, as we all know, breakfast is the hardest meal for a vegan to assert their equality to the omnivores. Though Chef Mickey’s is a buffet, forget about eating anything but the fruit and cereal. They will bring you Silk if you ask for it. This is a prime example of where calling ahead pays off. They carry Bob’s Red Mill gluten- and egg-free pancake/waffle mix and are more than happy to whip up a delicious batch of vegan Mickeys for you. (They’re virtually indistinguishable by flavor from what I remember the old ones having tasted like.)
Those little black jars are real maple syrup, in case you were wondering. If you ask for it they’ll bring it out. I don’t know what’s in the "pump your own" buckets on the buffet.
Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe
That night we ate dinner using a counter service at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in the Magic Kingdom. The fun and somewhat nostalgic draw here for the vegan is being able to get a burger and load it up with toppings from the topping bar like, for me anyway, it was in the old days. They used to carry oversized Boca Burgers, but recently the entirety of WDW switched to Gardenburger California Burgers. They are still vegan and quite good, though I’ve been eating Boca Burgers for decades and still have a strong affinity for them…
One item for vegans to beware of: their regular buns contain dairy (this stands true for all the quick service restaurants that sell veggie burgers). You’ll have to ask for the burger on the gluten-free tapioca roll (again, they're delicious, so don’t fret!). The chef I spoke to was really nice and even gave me a side of baked french fries (presumably so they weren’t cooked in the same fryers as the other animal bits). They were so perfectly crunchy and evenly cooked that I had to question whether they were really baked. I don’t usually eat fries, but I didn't leave any on the plate.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review
The following night we ate dinner at the Hoop-Dee-Doo Review dinner show at Pioneer Hall in the Fort Wilderness Resort. We’ve been going to this show since I was 8 years old, so I’ve eaten there through all stages of dietary development.
Like all of the other restaurants, I called ahead. Apparently they now can make vegan pasta primavera (their pasta used to contain eggs, but no longer does. However, you definitely want to call and double check before you eat there). They offered as a substitute, vegan baked beans with grilled veggies and a baked potato. I thought it fit slightly better with the theme (they serve baked beans with bacon alongside their ribs, fried chicken and cornbread, which is of course, also not vegan).
The best thing there, as far as I’m concerned, is the big bucket of salad on your table when you arrive. Be aware that even though the dressing is vegan, they grate asiago cheese over the top, so be sure to ask for it without cheese.
My actual meal didn’t quite stack up next to the others. I had eaten a little of this before I took the picture, but you get the idea. The veggies were steamed without seasoning. The potato was good, as were the baked beans, but it seemed rather bland and lackluster, especially in light of what was soon to come.
If you’re going to go, go for the entertainment, not for the food. They’d offered me a fruit plate for dessert, since I couldn’t eat the strawberry shortcake, but actually ended up just giving me a bowl of fresh strawberries. They were fine and I’m not fussy. But if you don’t get the pasta, you’ll probably be hungry a few hours later.
And now we once again return to Chef T.J. Pardon me if I gush about this man, but it must be said that he is one of the nicest, most considerate, warm and truly happiest people I’ve ever met (and considering he works 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, that's saying tons!).
Now to reiterate, we met in 2006 at Boma. The food he made was so good (including the special dietary meals he made for my carnivorous family) that we’d canceled one of our other reservations and returned to Boma a few nights later.
Fast forward to 2007. We ate at Boma twice, but sadly, Chef T.J. was on a much deserved vacation both days. The food was great, but it was disappointing because we’d really hoped to see him.
Fast forward to 2009. Now just to impress upon you, I had only met this man twice ever. Both times in the same week back in 2006. Approximately two and a half years later, this May 2009, I walked into Captain Cook’s (the counter service restaurant in the Polynesian Resort) to buy a banana for my mother around midnight, and who happened to be passing through at the exact same time? Chef T.J. What's so amazing is that instantly his face lit up with recognition and he greeted me like old family, remembering that I was vegetarian, and inquiring about my mother. Quite remarkable. (I regularly forget the names and faces of my own relatives.)
To sum up, I told him that I had gone strictly vegan to which he replied “Oh, that’s great!” He then proceeded to tell me that at ‘Ohana, he now makes special for vegans, a six course vegan feast. Oh yes, my friends, ‘Ohana, the “all you care to eat” restaurant where the servers walk table-to-table lugging long sharp skewers dripping with the hot blood of cows, pigs, turkeys and shrimp, was hiding a multi-course vegan bonanza! (Keep in mind that at present he works at 'Ohana Sunday-Thursday so you should definitely call ahead to make sure he's going to be there.)
After altering our schedule, Chef T.J. got us reservations a few nights later. I must go into detail on this menu because it was one of the greatest (and most filling) meals of my life, vegan or otherwise.
Chef T.J. hand-delivers each successive course with great care and stunning presentation. You never actually order or request anything. You just wait eagerly to see what's going to emerge from the kitchen. I find something wonderfully liberating about putting your entire meal in the hands of a capable chef and letting him custom create something for you. Not only liberating, but a downright honor.
Course 1 - Salad Course.
A delicious (and rather large) salad containing greens, cabbage, sesame, pineapple, almonds, (smoked, I think) and a host of other delectable bits in a wonderful Asian dressing. (Chef T.J., if you would like, please feel free to correct any of my descriptions!) And accompanying it, a ring of wonderful crouton-esque toast spears surrounding a circle of red pepper hummus and baba ganoush. Fantastic!
Course 2 – The Soup Course
In this, he brings out a dish containing two soups. (And two spoons, so the tastes won't commingle.) One was a thick and creamy, slightly sweet and gingery carrot soup (it just so happens that I love ginger). The other was a shitake mushroom soup with soy sauce and green snap peas. Chef T.J.’s food is not overly spicy, but there is a little pleasant heat involved in both of these.
Course 3 – The next course was so tantalizingly delicious that I still get little shivers remembering it. Simple presentation, but the flavors were so complex and wonderfully balanced that I’m starting to salivate writing this description. I don’t honestly know what he called them, but these two wraps, rolled in a thin flexible paper made from soybeans, and filled with avocado, pineapple and cucumbers really don’t need to be called anything but “never enough”. The outside of the wraps were studded with white and black sesame seeds. The real key to the flavor here, though, was that orange sauce drizzled across the plate. This was a guava, papaya and orange reduction. Those darker red dots are a hot chili sauce, and not so much visible in the pictures, though very prevalent on the taste buds, is a small puddle of toasted sesame oil and salt. Combined together the whole far transcends the sum of its parts. All I can say is I could really go for a few dozen more of these.
Okay, so by now, I was getting full. And frankly, starting to worry whether I could hold up through three more courses.
Course 4 – Mushrooms Three Ways.
I am a huge lover of mushrooms, so when I saw this pretty plate with three heaps of mushrooms (shitake, oyster and enochi) descending in front of me, I was a very happy man and had regained my urge to persevere. One group of mushrooms was cooked with a pomegranate glaze. Another with a chili sauce, and the other, well, to be honest, I had sort of bailed on my note taking at this point and was thoroughly engrossed in the act of enjoying every morsel of food, rather than cataloging its ingredients for my future blog. At least I took pictures before I tore each plate to shreds.
Seriously, by now, I’d had it. I was stuffed. But as the courses seemed to be staying light, I was optimistic. A little apprehensive that he might pull out a Chef T.J. showstopper like the old Boma days… But no, not after all those successive courses.
And then he showed up with this:
One more pic to give perspective on its size:
An ode to all things delicious and fried. There was tempura asparagus and broccoli raab, stir fried broccoli, swiss chard and a host of other veggies in rice as the base of this towering volcano of sweet and sour heaven. And then forming the structure, those crisp swirly arabesques were fried rice noodles, all bathed in a perfectly complimentary sauce.
Doing the only thing I could, knowing I still had a dessert course yet to go, I dug in. And then a few minutes later, Chef T.J. came running out: “Forgot the tofu!” he laughed. And dropped off these impressive impostors of Asian style bbq ribs.
Though I fought valiantly, I regret to say I had to take about half of this last course home with me. I am, however, happy to report that everything tastes almost as good reheated.
Lastly, Course 6 – Dessert.
For me, he made a (thankfully) light and smooth blend of lychee berries and ice, with halved lychees on top, and a few raspberries around the rim. Delicious!
My close-up shots of this came out quite blurry, but thankfully I have a few shots of Chef T.J. and me posing behind it.
And so concludes my first multi-course vegan feast. But wait! Being slightly gluttonous, and being driven to seek sustenance close to our room since Florida happened to be getting more rain in a few days than it had in the combined three preceding years (no joke), we asked Chef T.J. if he could possibly squeeze us in the next night for a repeat performance. He came through for us once more. Though again, I must give a caveat here. Unless you are an experienced overeater, I highly suggest spacing out such an undertaking by at least two or three days. I did not, and I paid for it.
I could just go ahead and say the next night was a perfect repeat of the preceding night, only, it wasn’t. Chef T.J., never one to repeat himself lest we get “bored”, prepared an entirely different feast for the following night.
Buckle up. I’m getting full just thinking about it.
Back Lot Express
I skipped breakfast the next day, and opted only to have the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich at the Back Lot Express in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This is a great vegan sandwich if you order it without the cheese. It takes about ten minutes or so, but it’s worth the wait. It includes marinated mushrooms, red peppers, zucchini, tomato and watercress with a sundried tomato pesto (thankfully there’s no cheese or dairy in this) all on a black olive ciabatta roll. On the side is a cilantro-laden black bean salad.
‘Ohana (Round 2)
Still a bit full from the previous night's gastronomic marathon, I settled in to do it all over again.
Course 1 – Salad Course
In a wonderful synthesis of two of the previous night’s dishes, Chef T.J. brought out four of these “ice cream cones” made of the same soybean wrap as those little bites of heaven from the day before. But this time they were filled with salad and accompanied by a chimichurri dressing, a sweet and sour dressing and more of that outstanding baba ganoush. Tucked in alongside the cups were a few more of those crunchy toast points. What a fun light first course! (I love interactive food.)
Course 2 – Soup Course
Now the night before, I’d mistakenly guessed that the mushroom soup contained miso. So this following night, Chef T.J. made me a shitake miso soup with fried papaya, and a roasted red pepper soup with pomegranate drizzle, the combination of which sounds a little odd, but works so well. The pomegranate adds an unexpected tropical tartness to the soup that really brings it alive.
Course 3 – Tofu Four Ways
This course was bold to say the least. And thankfully I have an appreciation for tofu. Each was marinated in a different sauce. Left to right they are: Curry, Mustard, Ponzu, and Skyy Vodka. Eating four slabs of tofu like this is as filling as one might expect. Again, I must impress on you never to attempt this sort of meal two days in a row. It hurt. I’m a fairly small eater normally, and the sheer quantity of food involved here, to say nothing of the rich decadence of it, is a lot to handle all at one time. That said, you really must do it at least once!
Course 4 – Entrée
Now even though I was ready to throw in the towel by this point, Chef T.J. was not about to let me off the hook with a few steamed veggies and a baked potato. Tonight’s entrée consisted of skewers of tempura whole baby portabella mushrooms, (like the best fried mushrooms you've never had!) skewers of tempura snap peas, tempura pickle slices (I know, I know, but they are so wickedly tasty!) with a delicious noodle mix of bok choy, cabbage, etc.
Like all of the Chef T.J.’s food, it was covered with a luscious sauce that’s slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and thoroughly addictive.
So I just start to attempt to dent this wonderful madness, when he shuffles back to the table: “Forgot your asparagus.” And he sets down a plate of nicely charred asparagus stalks. Just the way I like them: charred on the outside but somewhat al dente on the inside. It’s like he’s been cooking for me for years he know my tastes so well.
(Not a very good picture of the asparagus, I know, but I was so full I could barely lift the camera by this point.)
Of course, I took home almost of all of the previous course. I couldn’t possibly cram it all in, nor would I want to waste it by not truly enjoying it. Chef T.J. said it wouldn't offend him at all because he knows he “cooks big”. Understatement? Oh yeah. But well appreciated.
(On a little side note, I actually took the remainder of that course out the following night around 11:00 pm. I heated the skewers and left the noodles cold. Carried them both by tray down by the little white sand beach of the Polynesian and truly enjoyed the meal, looking out over the water, relaxed, hungry and quite blissful.)
Course 5 – Dessert
Before he was about to leave to retrieve the dessert, I supplicated to him to please, just give me something small. Small. “Small. Yes, okay,” he promised. And then he returned with this:
On the bottom, a thick wedge of pineapple. Above, alternating scoops of vanilla and chocolate Tofutti. And squished on either sides of two of the scoops were two halved Divvies chocolate chip cookies. A banana slice on the top, and then a thick drizzle of chocolate sauce. Need I say more?
And thus ended the second of two incredible vegan feasts courtesy of the amazing, and rightfully famous, Chef T.J.
Two very hard acts to follow. And thankfully, my next meals were significantly lighter.
El Pirata y el Perico
For lunch the next day I had an absolute must-try by all veggies at the Magic Kingdom. At the counter service restaurant El Pirata y el Perico, they serve vegetarian tacos. These are basically two taco shells with some really rich and tasty vegan refried black beans. You can load them up with your own toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions and salsa are all safe). And on the side is a bowl of white rice with more of the beans slathered on top. You certainly get a good protein bang for your buck here.
Here’s a pic of mine, all tricked out. Not pretty, but so good!
1900 Park Fare
And lastly, that night we ate at 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian Resort. This is a character buffet with a few vegan options on the bar. The Edamame Salad and Soba Noodle Salad both deserve a mention.
Again, having ordered ahead, I’d opted for the tofu with stirfried veggies and ginger rice. The rice was a little gingery and tasty. The tofu was breaded and pan fried. It was crunchy and texturally satisfying, but would have been better had it been marinated or joined with a sauce. I ate it along with the veggies which were also cooked well, but had no sauce to spare. The chef who came out to talk to us has actually been vegetarian for 40 years. But it appeared he wasn’t the chef who prepared my meal.
For dessert I had a nice scoop of swirled Tofutti.
And so ended my trip, and the steady parade of vegan cuisine with its mix of high and low points.
I hope it helps you make some choices and get some ideas for your own trips to Disney World. There’s no reason to think you’ll have to sacrifice your morals or your health while eating down there. Again, though, I do suggest calling at least two weeks before your actual arrival date to make sure you are all set before you get down there.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me!